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What's In A Name. . .A Game for Travelers: Origin of Some Names Along the Oregon Trail

[The Tombstone Epitaph, December, 1993]

When traveling through the west one inevitably passes hundreds and hundreds of historic sites and scenes--to most of which names have, at one time or another and in one manner or another, been attached. For the historically informed or interested, these names add to the atmosphere that is so much a part of "wandering the west". On occasion they also raise questions in mind of the passer-by: "I wonder where the name came from? Who attached this name to this place?" Delving into appropriate literature for answers, either before or while one travels, can add new dimensions to observing the sites and scenes of the frontier. Such activities can even be turned into an on-going daily game for the amusement and edification of entire families. Are there a sufficient number of sites/scenes located in reasonable proximity to each other effectively to permit such a "game". Since this is the sesquicentennial year for the Oregon Trail, let me describe a handful of examples from that portion of the trail located in present-day Nebraska and Wyoming. You can then draw your own conclusions, remembering that the examples which follow can easily be replicated by literally hundreds of others.

Let us begin with the fact that the States of Nebraska and Wyoming (along with their near neighbor, the Dakotas North and South) bear Indian names--the latter that of one of the principal tribes which inhabited the region in the early 19th century. "Nebraska" apparently means "flat water" or something of the sort and "Wyoming", derived from the Pennsylvania valley of the same name, "valleys and plains alternating". It might also be noted that Kansas, the first state through which the Oregon Trail lay also is named after an Indian tribe. "Omaha", the beginning of the north-side trail, is a tribal designation and the Platte River comes from the French, means "flat". Across the river from Omaha is Council Bluffs, Iowa. The city was so-named because it was located in the vicinity of the council Lewis and Clark held with Indians in 1804; among others, the Iowa Indians inhabited the vicinity.

Probably the first major land mark encountered by those following the Platte River was the grand island. Now the name of a small city, the "grand island" historically was precisely that--an island in the Platte River of exceptional size. A hundred miles up the river is the town of Kearney, located across the river from the site of historic Fort Kearny. Three things might be noted. One, the difference in spelling between the town and the fort has led more than one writer (including whoever did the exhibits at the one-year-old BLM Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon!) to add an "e" to the spelling of the military establishment. Two, Fort Kearny was historically described with some frequency as being located at or near the head of the Grand Island. Three, there were two "Fort Kearny's", the original was located near present-day Nebraska City on the Missouri River. The number may, in fact, be increased to three if one includes Fort Phil Kearny, located at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, on the Bozeman Trail, in north-central Wyoming. Nebraska's Fort Kearny was named after General Stephen Watts Kearny who, guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick, led his dragoons up the trail in 1845. The Wyoming post, of course, bears the name of the fire-eating Union general killed in the Civil War.

The city of North Platte draws its name from the fact that it is located west and slightly north of that point where the Platte River separates into the South Platte and the North Platte. Next comes Ogallala, which like so many others owed it creation to the Union Pacific Railroad. A cowtown which in its heyday rivaled Julesburg, Wichita, Abiline and even the fabled Dodge City, "Oglala" is the name of one of the principal bands of the Teton Lakota, the most famous leaders of which were Red Cloud and Crazy Horse; with an alteration in spelling, the name was applied to the cowtown.

A contemporary traveler who follows U.S. Highway 26 west from Ogallala up the North Platte Valley will pass a series of land marks whose names were provided by 19th century emigrants along the Oregon-California Trail: Ash Hollow (named for the trees found in the vicinity), Ancient Bluff Ruins, Court House Rock, Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. All but the last named called forth in the minds of emigrants the image suggested by the name which they recorded in their diaries. Court House Rock and Chimney Rock were, in fact, called by several different names in emigrant journals, but the contemporary designation appeared in the large majority. Scotts Bluff, however, is named after the ill-fated Hiram Scott, a mountain man who was taken sick at rendezvous and abandoned by companions who had been assigned the task of escorting him back down the river. According to the story, Scott's bones were found in the vicinity of the huge bluff that has ever since borne his name.

The name "Laramie" is virtually synonymous with that of "Wyoming". Jacques La Ramee, an early 19th-century French- Canadian fur trapper, was allegedly killed by Indians on or near the river that came to bear his hame, anglicized to "Laramie. The name was subsequently applied also to a peak in the Medicine Bow Range, a range of mountains and what became arguably the most famous military post on the northern plains: Fort Laramie.

A day or so beyond Fort Laramie, emigrants encountered thermal springs, which they promptly dubbed "Warm Springs". Female diarists regularly expressed appreciation for the ready availability of naturally warmed water for laundry purposes. Nearby was a sandstone cliff upon which a very large number of emigrants inscribed their names. Not surprisingly, the site quickly came to be knows as Register Cliff.

Among the many creeks passed over or by between Fort Laramie and the big bend of the North Platte River was the one called La Bonte. It was named after a French trapper, Pierre La Bonte, who lived in the valley of that stream with his Indian wife until one day, in his absence, his wife was taken by Indian raiders.

In central Wyoming the North Platte River executes a great bend and heads south towards its head waters in the high country of the Rockies in Colorado. Today, the city of Casper, Wyoming's largest, is located there. The city, the mountain and the military post, Fort Caspar, constructed and maintained during the years of greatest travel on the Oregon-California Trail have a common namesake--Lieutenant Caspar Collins, 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. Lieutenant Collins was killed while leading troops to the relief of a train attacked by Indians near the Platte River Bridge. Fort Caspar was subsequently named after him. The substitution of "Casper" for "Caspar" in the naming of the city has been attributed to that frequent focal point of critical comment, the U.S. Postal Service. Lieutenant Collins' father, Colonel William O. Collins, commanded the 11th Ohio which replaced regular army troops on the high plains during the Civil War. Fort Collins, Colorado is named after the colonel.

Shortly after passing the big bend of the North Platte, wagon trains left that river and crossed over to what is arguably its most famous tributary--the Sweetwater--which they then followed to the Continental Divide. In all probability, the name "Sweet Water" derived from the fact that its water was relatively pure as compared with the high alkali content of many other streams. At least alternative story surfaced, however. According to this account an early pack train encountered some difficulty in crossing the river. One of the mules threw his pack and the contents were lost in the fast-flowing stream. Among the contents was a sack of sugar which, when added to the water of the river, obviously resulted in the temporary creation of "Sweet Water".

About sixty miles below Casper, in the valley of the Sweetwater, stand two of the most famous landmarks of the Oregon-California Trail--Independence Rock and Devil's Gate. Although still a matter of some controversy among historians, majority opinion holds that Independence Rock was named by William Sublette when he and his party of trappers/traders celebrated the Fourth of July on the site in 1830. A very large number of emigrants took the time to inscribe their names on this huge, turtle-shaped granite mass, a fact that led Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, the pioneer priest, to dub it "The Great Register of the Desert".

Devil's Gate was apparently so-named by unknown emigrants. References to the nether regions and the Prince of Darkness were applied by diarists with some frequency to sites which they deemed to merit such designation. Elsewhere in the State of Wyoming, for example, are located the Devil's Backbone, Devil's Tower (the first national monument created by Congress), Devil's Slide and Hell's Half Acre. An Indian legend attributed the opening of the gap in the mountains to a great beast whom the Indians were required by their spiritual leaders to attack and drive from the valley. Stung by arrows, the legend goes, the great beast ripped open the gap with one of his huge tusk's and disappeared through it, never again to be seen. Matthew Field, the correspondent for the New Orleans Times Picayune, who accompanied William Sublette on one of his mountain journeys, referred to the site as "The Gates of Hell".

Wagon Trains crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass, first crossed by Robert Stuart and his party returning from Astoria in the winter of 1812-13, Why was it called "South" Pass? Because it was located considerably to the south of the pass through the mountains followed in the first decade of the century by Lewis and Clark. About a mile or so beyond South Pass, trains frequently stopped at Pacific Springs, so named because the water from this spring was the first encountered which flowed into the Pacific Ocean, not the Gulf of Mexico.

Beyond South Pass, emigrants crossed, among others, the Green River--known to Mountain Men and Indians as the Siskadee Agie, or SageHen River. Black's Fork of that river was named after one such mountain man who had the misfortune to come out second best in an "argument" with an Indian war party. Our final site in Wyoming is Fort Bridger, located in what is still a garden spot of the state. It was of constructed by, and named after, Jim Bridger, one of the most famous of the mountain men.

If this brief "run-through" of place names has sparked your interest, the next time you travel why not take the time before or during the trip to do your own "name finding"?

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved